File Under: Browsers, Mobile

Fennec Fits Everything You Love About Firefox Into Your Pocket

A burning question that’s been tossed around for years — “Why isn’t Firefox on my phone?” — has finally been answered.

Firefox will begin showing up on mobile devices at the end of this year. I got the chance to test a beta version of Firefox on a pre-release mobile device. The browser, code-named Fennec, is the closest thing yet to a real, desktop-class browser for mobiles.

It does almost everything Firefox on the desktop does, and with the speed, stability and support for web standards one would expect from a browser branded with the Firefox name.

Last week, Wired.com received a Nokia N900 for review. The black, brick-style phone has a touchscreen and a physical keyboard. It runs Maemo, Nokia’s operating system based on Debian Linux, and Maemo has its own, dedicated build of Fennec. I installed Fennec for Maemo Beta 4, the latest stable release, and spent a few days surfing with it.

All the features that endear us to Firefox — tabbed browsing, the smart URL bar, easy bookmarking and history management, spellchecker, password manager, an innovative user interface — are present and working properly. There are still some sticky bugs, but it’s already very usable.

While the mobile web of just a few years ago was clunky, slow and unsatisfying, today’s mobile web is a whole new bag. The iPhone’s Mobile Safari and Google’s Android browser (both based on the same open source WebKit engine), along with the Opera Mobile browser are feature-rich tiny machines. Mobile bandwidth is still limited, but fast enough and getting faster. Cities are blanketed in Wi-Fi hotspots. Flash support is incomplete, but improving quickly. Most of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel when we won’t need the desktop for all but the most serious tasks.

Mozilla has remained largely absent from this revolution until now. Firefox will first be made available for devices running Windows Mobile and Maemo. Later, a version is expected for Android. There won’t be a version of Firefox for the BlackBerry, for Symbian or for the iPhone any time soon, (Mozilla execs get asked the iPhone question all the time, and their answer is always the same — Apple’s restrictions on the device are too tight for Mozilla’s browser to be able to function properly).

Performance is what this browser will be judged on, and at least on the N900, the Fennec team should expect high marks. Pages load very quickly and I encountered few rendering problems in my tests. I hit all my usual destinations: Gmail, Google Reader, Craigslist, Wired, Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed. Of course, I followed scores of links out to other sites.

Since it’s built on the same code as Firefox (actually, it’s based on Firefox 3.6 code, which hasn’t even made it to the desktop yet), Fennec has excellent support for web standards, Ajax, microformats and for advanced CSS layouts. Flash support is coming soon. The latest nightly builds have it, but it’s buggy — Mozilla’s QA blog notes there are syncing issues with audio and video. The beta I used didn’t have Flash capability.

The N900′s screen is touch-sensitive, so double-tapping on an image or paragraph of text zooms in cleanly without a page refresh. You can see the page element get sharper as you zoom in — just like the iPhone’s browser. Text flows cleanly around images and hardly ever spills out of bounding boxes.

One notable flaw in Fennec is that words often appear a little crushed. Most sites I visited showed kerning and letter spacing issues (Wired.com is one example). On a few sites (like Craigslist) text showed up perfectly fine. Results varied on the rest. These inconsistencies are probably due to a combination of the text styling the website author has chosen and the fact that most sites don’t yet know what to do with Fennec’s user-agent string — the bit of code identifying it as a mobile browser. Websites will serve mobile-optimized sites to mobile browsers, which is why you’ll sometimes get redirected to a different URL or served bigger text when you hit some websites with your iPhone or BlackBerry.

Fennec is such an unknown entity on the web that most sites don’t know it’s a mobile browser. Leading up to launch, we’ll see more sites recognizing it for what it is — a browser running on a tiny screen.

One fix is to install an add-on that lets you change the user-agent string and impersonate a more widely-used mobile browser (this is called “spoofing”), but such an add-on doesn’t exist yet. Visiting the page for the most popular user-agent spoofer for Firefox shows at least one fan has already requested a Fennec version.

Thankfully, Fennec’s page-rendering problems are largely contained to text kerning and spacing. But it gets worse when you zoom in. There’s already a bug report filed for the kerning issues, and they should be fixed before 1.0 arrives.

The only other notable problem is page sluggishness when scrolling. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the page is fully loaded, whether it’s weighed down with JavaScript, or whether you’re using the keypad or your finger. Fennec is an equal-opportunity page sluggifier.

One Mozilla engineer I e-mailed says the team has been trying to get rid of one of the browser’s visual tics — a slight, side-to-side “jitter” that sometimes happens when you place your finger on the screen to drag it — and that the fix they’ve applied has inadvertently caused the sluggishness to show up in this beta. It should improve in the next beta release.

Beyond performance, the next most critical ingredient for a browser is a well-designed user interface. Fennec has one.

Just as with Firefox’s “Awesome bar,” the Fennec address bar does triple-duty — it’s a URL bar, a Google search box and a history and bookmarks search tool. Results are suggested as you type, and on the N900, it’s snappy.

Swiping the page left or right exposes two additional banks of controls. Swipe to the right and you get a tab manager. It shows thumbnails of all your open browser tabs and a big plus sign you use to open a new tab.

Swipe to the left and you get forward and back controls, the Star button to mark a page as a favorite and a button that brings up the Settings panel.

Hiding these elements just beyond the edges of the page saves as much screen real estate as possible for the web page itself without sacrificing the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from a modern browser. It’s an innovative twist.

Inside the Settings panel you get an add-on manager, a downloads manager, a control panel for toggling how Fennec handles scripts and images by default. (Look closely — the description for the “Enable JavaScript” box says “Makes websites flashy” and the one for “Enable Plug-ins” says “Makes websites annoying.”) This panel is also where you can choose to save passwords or cookies and where you clear your browser cache.

There are a few Fennec add-ons to be found at addons.mozilla.org/mobile. The best ones to try right now are GeoGuide, which shows photos, events and weather for your current location, and Mozilla’s own Weave, which syncs your bookmarks, history, passwords, and tabs between Fennec and your desktop versions of Firefox.

Mobile Firefox will be the first mobile browser with a real add-on architecture. That’s exciting, but there still aren’t very many add-ons for Fennec available. The release candidate stage (once it’s out of beta) is when many Firefox add-on authors will complete the process of adapting their desktop versions to work with Fennec. Meanwhile, Mozilla is waving the start flag — Thursday’s issue of its about:mobile newsletter is aimed squarely at mobilizing mobile add-on developers.

With GeoGuide and Weave installed, Fennec is remarkably stable. In three days of testing, Fennec didn’t crash once, and this is pre-release software. I can’t say the same about Mobile Safari, which has been around for a couple of years and still crashes at least once or twice per day.

Even though they’re not perfect, the Webkit browsers for the iPhone and Android have set expectations very high for mobile browsers. Scrolling on multi-touch devices like the iPhone and the new Droid is smooth and intuitive. There are a slew of new Android phones coming out this fall, and enhancements to the Android’s browser in the recent Eclair release give it new abilities. It includes support for multi-touch screen gestures, native video playback and expanded support for HTML5 elements that make JavaScript-heavy websites like Gmail and Facebook faster and more comfortable to use.

This is the arena Fennec will be entering when it’s released later this year. At this stage, it looks like it will be a success — at least on devices where it actually runs.

Note: We couldn’t get the N900 to take good screenshots, so the screenshots shown here are from a Maemo emulator running on Mac OS X.

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